We have a phrase back in the UK that we like to use when it's extraordinarily chilly outside: We call it 'brass monkey weather,' i.e. weather that's cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. The origin of the phrase is debated, but one thing is for sure – brass monkey weather is nothing compared to what happens inside a cryo chamber.
Thanks to relentless advocacy from my friend Max in California, I decided to book a trial appointment at 111CRYO in London to see what all the fuss is all about. The idea is that you go into a ridiculously cold chamber, mostly naked, for a few minutes, and come out rewarded with all sorts of different health benefits. As someone who prefers hot, humid weather to the cold, I tried repeatedly to put this off but ultimately decided to go and see what all the fuss was about.
There are all sorts of purported benefits of cryotherapy: It helps heal sport injuries, it helps lose weight (with web sites citing calorie burn rates of 500-800 in a three-minute session!), it lowers high cholesterol, it makes you sleep better, it makes you happier, puts a spring in your step and apparently even makes you horny. Famous actors and sportspeople do it. One day I went to the chamber, Johnny Depp had been there earlier. With so many claims, this had to be put to the test!
Types of chambers
There are a few different ways of doing this. In some cases, one steps into a narrow, vertically oriented tube with only one's head sticking out of the top. Freezing cold gas which is heavier than air is injected into the tube; one turns around in circles and stays there for a few minutes. This is an extraordinarily cold process, with the air in the chamber going as low as -145C. I've not tried this version of cryotherapy; one of my friends has, said it felt very tingly, but didn't love it enough to consider going back a second time.
The Chamber at 111CRYO is basically like a shower cubicle with a glass door, but without a seat, and powered by electricity. It's called "whole body" because the head is included, unlike the gas version. The air in the chamber is cooled down to about -85C. There are some newer, larger chambers around that will go a bit colder than that and sometimes I've seen people who are really into the process get into debates as to whose chamber is bigger or colder. However to put this into perspective, -85C is in the ballpark of the lowest temperature ever recorded in Antartica and one is experience it largely without clothes on.
There's a countdown timer clock on wall outside the door, some frozen up loudspeakers inside to listen to some music from Spotify, and enough space to move around a bit. That's about it.
The first experience
The staff at 111CRYO are great and do an excellent job in assuaging the concerns of a first time customer. After a health survey, one goes into a small changing room, takes off all clothes except underpants, puts on some sorts, some gloves, a headband and a surgical-style covid mask (to stop pain or frostbite on the extremities) and walks to the chamber. The clock gets set — in my case for a recommended 4 minutes to start. Some music gets turned on – I wanted something happy and poppy to move around with, so chose some random Alan Walker track. The door opens, a rush of frosty foggy air comes out, and I step into the fog.
Some snowflakes are falling down inside the chamber, and initially the only thing one can see is the light from the countdown clock beaming through the fog. After maybe 10-20 seconds the fog clears and just the odd snowflake continues to fall, caused by the condensation of one's breath.
This is a very dry, damp cold. It doesn't feel anywhere near as uncomfortable as I expected, although one spends a great amount of time contemplating it since there's not much else to do except move around a bit to the music and do some daydreaming. Occasionally I brush ice crystals off my arm, chest and leg hair for something to do. One can feel the cold feeling slowly infiltrating the body, starting with the skin, going through the muscles and working its way deeper inside. In the last 30 seconds or so, one's leg bones actually start to feel quite chilly which is an interesting sensation I've never felt before.
The clock hit zero, I stepped out and the staff recorded my skin temperature. It should be noted that -85C is the temperature of air entering the chamber; since there's a body inside (me) the ambient temperature is a bit higher, the walls are higher, and ones skin is higher still and doesn't actually freeze.
After the fact, and subsequent visits
Firstly, it feels great to get out and I actually felt rather warm and thirsty. The likely reaction is "god, I didn't die, and this is over with, I feel great!" The bone and muscle ache continued throughout the day; climbing steps was a lot of work, in the sort of way that high altitude or having a flu makes moving in direction that opposes gravity rather challenging. I had little to no appetite. That night I was exhausted, went to bed early and slept like a baby.
The experience was overall incredibly convenient, taking less than 10 minutes in a location close to my home and office, with no need to shower afterwards. The staff told me that such aching feeling was fairly uncommon (although it also happened to another friend the first time he tried it) so I decided to try it again.
On subsequent visits, the aches did not repeat. I noticed that my mood was, in fact, far better during the day after doing cryo than days when I didn't, sometimes so much so that even extremely adverse events at work wouldn't take a smile off my face. I commented on this sometimes to colleagues, the feeling is real —"throw all the bad news at me, it doesn't matter, I did cryo and can't feel bad about anything!". I continued to sleep better during the nights after cryo and did feel that I ate less during the day afterwards.
I didn't notice any of the other purported benefits: Changes in one's skin tone didn't occur, an aching shoulder only improved marginally (apparently it has to be a three-times-a-week thing to remedy that, which is both too expensive and too often for me), weight loss due to the high calorie burn was clearly nonsense (no way one can burn 800 calories in three minutes) etc. However, feeling really great after, being in a better mood and having a superior nights sleep were benefits worth seeking out repeatedly. One of my friends who is a runner said it feels just like the exhilaration of taking a long run.
Would I recommend it?
Yes. Since getting used to going once or twice a week during the London summer, I actually miss the experience and look forward to going back. I've taken a couple of friends and they enjoy it. It's not a cheap thing to do, unfortunately, but taking an extra 20 minutes out of one's day sometimes to feel better and sleep well is a nice treat to look forward to.